AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A marine biologist from Australia traveled to a remote string of islands in the Indian Ocean to see how much plastic waste had washed up on the beaches. Here's just part of what she found.
JENNIFER LAVERS: Three-hundred-and-seventy-three-thousand toothbrushes and around 975,000 shoes, largely flip-flops.
CORNISH: As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, that's just what was on the surface.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Jennifer Lavers went to the Cocos Keeling Islands, way off the northwest coast of Australia. It was a good place because almost no one lives there. That meant the plastic debris there was not local. It floated in, and no one was picking it up. That gave her a good notion of just how much was bobbing around in the ocean. She was flabbergasted by what she found.
LAVERS: So more than 414 million pieces of plastic debris are estimated to be currently sitting on the Cocos Keeling Islands, weighing a remarkable 238 tons.
JOYCE: There are 27 of these islands, most just a few acres in size. Lavers' team counted plastic on seven of them, then they multiplied that number by the total beach area of all the islands. Lavers has done this before on other remote islands.
LAVERS: You get to the point where you feel like not really much is going to surprise you anymore, and then something does. And that something was actually the amount of debris that was buried.
JOYCE: Buried. Lavers didn't just count the stuff on the surface; she dug down four inches into the sand.
LAVERS: What was really quite amazing was that the deeper we went, the more plastic we were actually finding. And what you see is only the tip.
JOYCE: What happens is that the sun breaks down the plastic on the surface, and the waves pummel it into tiny pieces and drive it into the sand.
LAVERS: But it's the little stuff that's perfectly bite-sized, the stuff that fish and squid and birds and even turtles can eat.
JOYCE: In fact, most of the plastic waste was just under the surface.
LAVERS: We estimated that what was hidden below the sediment was somewhere in the range of 380 million pieces of plastic.
JOYCE: But not permanently. Eventually, she says, high tides or storms will carry it out to sea. Lavers, who's at the University of Tasmania in Australia, described what she found in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. It's becoming increasingly clear that no place seems immune. Ecologist Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto says different places simply have different kinds of plastic. In the Arctic, for example...
CHELSEA ROCHMAN: Contaminants are transported via air currents in addition to ocean currents, and there we see high concentrations of small microfibers and small particles. And so absolutely, you expect different things in different places, and what you find tells you something about where it's coming from.
JOYCE: Rochman says she's not exactly surprised by what Lavers found.
ROCHMAN: It's just kind of sad to - you know, to read about it and think, yep. OK, this is becoming, I guess, normal. And we never wanted something like this to become normal.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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